Monday, April 25, 2011

A Brief History of the Island of Hvar

As one would expect for an island, the history of Hvar has been broadly shaped and influenced by outsiders, each invading force leaving their mark, which has resulted in a rich cultural, archaeological and architectural legacy. There is much to discover for visitors interested in the heritage of Hvar, as this brief overview of the island’s history will demonstrate.

The earliest signs of civilisation on Hvar date back to Neolithic times and the so-called Hvar Culture of 3500 – 2500 BC. These estimates by archaeologists are based on artefacts and painted pottery in the caves of Grapceva and Markova Spilija, both of which can be visited today. Examples of the finds are displayed in the excellent Heritage Museum in Hvar Town.

Given its prominent position on a busy sea route, it is perhaps surprising that the island was not settled earlier that 384 BC, when the Ancient Greeks founded the settlement of Pharos (modern-day Stari Grad). The Ionian Greeks, the Parans, were in search of a base for military and trade expansion and the deep bay at Pharos offered the best protection.

The first recorded naval battle in the Adriatic took place just off Hvar, with the Greeks successfully taking on the native Illyrian tribe of the Liburni, an account of which was written by Diodorus of Sicily.

While there is some evidence of Greek heritage in present day Stari Grad, the most striking remnant is the UNESCO-protected Stari Grad Plain, a superbly preserved 80-hectare agricultural colony still in use today.

With the decline of the Syracuse Empire, Pharos enjoyed a brief period of local rule under Demetrius of Hvar, who kept the Romans at bay until they finally smashed the walls of Pharos in 229 BC. The Romans used the island as a strategic and logistical base, keeping their boats in the protected bays of the Scedro and the Pakleni Islands. Roman holiday houses sprang up in the bays close to fresh water, most notably in Hvar, Stari Grad and Jelsa. Archaeological finds confirm that the islanders were engaged in an existence of wine growing, fishing and trade.

There is little recorded about Hvar after Roman rule but the island was under a Croatian state of the Neretljani in the early Middle Ages, along with surrounding islands, before being briefly occupied by Venice in 1147. This was only temporary, however, as Croatian-Hungarian King Bela III managed to bring Dalmatia under his rule.

The Venetians were back in 1278, having been invited back by the islanders looking for protection from the pirates of Omis. One of the early changes the Venetians introduced was to move central administration from Stari Grad to Hvar, and the new centre became a regional centre of administration for Hvar, Vis and Brac. A plan to build walls around the town and monastery was initiated in 1292.

Venice’s rule was far from secure, and the island’s noblemen rebelled in 1310, and the Hvar’s rulers changed several times (Croatian-Hungarian kingdom, Bosnian kingdom and Dubrovnik) before, along with the rest of Dalmatia, a more protracted period of Venetian rule from 1420 to 1797.

Hvar became the main Venetian port in the eastern Adriatic, but was under constant threat of attack from the Turkish fleet which controlled the mainland near Makarska. A devastating Turkish naval attack in 1571 under Algerian commander Uluz Ali in 1571 laid waste Vrboska, Stari Grad and Hvar.

Hvar prospered under Venetian rule, and was known as a place for wine, lavender, olives, rosemary, fishing and boat building. More than three centuries of rule from Venice came to an end in 1797, when the Austrians briefly took over before themselves being usurped by the French. The Russians bombarded Hvar in 1807 in a period of general instability and warfare in Europe, until the Austrians retook control in 1813, a rule that lasted into the 20th Century.

Austrian rule was stable and brought prosperity, most notably in the development of health tourism on the island, with the founding of the Hvar Health Society in 1868. The oldest meteorological station in Croatia was also established in 1858. Austrian rule also brought infrastructure improvements to the island, with all the ports rebuilt, new lighthouses, malaria-infested marshland reclaimed, and a road connecting Jelsa to Pitve and Vrisnik in 1907. The old road from Jelsa to Hvar did not appear until the 1930s, and previous travel options were ship or 8-hour donkey ride.

The Italians were back in November, 1919, occupying Hvar once more after fierce fighting, an occupation which lasted until the 1921 Treaty of Rapello consigned the island to membership of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later the first Yugoslavia and then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Hvar’s latest (and one would hope permanent) change of master occurred on January 15 1992, when Croatia was recognised as an independent state.

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